I have been fascinated by Lincoln since middle school when I became interested in his last days and specifically the controversy surrounding his assassination. (Did you know there’s revisionist historians who believe that his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was behind his death?)
Tonight I went to the movies with my three kids and my wife to see Lincoln. Clearly, this movie was a work of art from the use of lighting (not much), to the attention to detail (yes, Robert Lincoln was truly with Gen. Grant at Appomattox Court House when Lee surrendered to him), and of course, to the Academy Award potentially-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis.
But my interest was viewing Lincoln the Leader. Here are some examples from the movie:
Heading True North
I’m not sure who wrote the lines, screenwriter Tony Kushner or Lincoln himself, but there is a telling scene with the President and the staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in the basement of the White House as they discussed the best route toward lasting emancipation for slaves. Lincoln knew that Stevens favored a brute force methodology toward success while the President believed that heading true north meant avoiding the swamps along the way. What good is it as you head north if you land in a swamp and cannot escape? Stevens may have understood Lincoln’s wisdom for when it came time for his own oratory regarding the 13th Amendment on the floor of the House, he went around the swamp. He stated allegiance to the black man’s equality under the law but not necessarily equality in all things. His more moderate position led to the passage of the Amendment and a more permanent freeing of the American slaves.
Using Humor to Teach
Lincoln’s propensity toward storytelling has been stereotyped throughout history but Day-Lewis betrays the image of a bumbling President and instead the actor presents a shrewd player who knows the power of leadership stories. Lincoln was able to masterfully influence opinion through stories that were not only endearing but became teaching opportunities.
Facing the Challenge Head On
There’s not a leader breathing today who hasn’t been at least tempted to lead with one eye closed. You may have heard of the Asian parable of the rotten lettuce on the dock. If you procrastinate long enough, the lettuce will rot and you won’t have to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, most ignored problems simply remain unsolved. Lincoln fought the Civil War by traveling to the battle sites, speaking to soldiers and capturing a visual image of the carnage.
Reflecting on Experience
John Dewey once said that “We do not learn from experience . . we learn from reflecting on experience.” Lincoln knew the power of reflecting within the richness of his experience. Each of us have formidable memories which provide the fodder for reflection and clear decision making.
Keep Your Enemies Closer
The famous motto keep your friends close and your enemies closer is the primary theme of Doris Kearns Goodwin 1995 book Team of Rivals, the inspiration behind the movie Lincoln. Three of Lincoln’s rivals in the 1860 Presidential election, Secretary of State Seward, Attorney General Edward Bates, and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, all landed cabinet positions in the Lincoln Administration. Lincoln was confident, knowing that the strengths of his “enemies” were beneficial in representing varied opinions therefore leading to more informed decisions. This could not have happened without Lincoln’s confidence in his leadership.
There is value in exploring the leadership lessons of Lincoln. In addition to Goodwin’s book, two years ago ASCD published Learning from Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success by Harvey B. Alvy and Pam Robbins.
In Lincoln’s words, You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.